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Voters need the same clout as big donors

Big Donor

Campaign finance reports show Greg Lindberg, founder and chairman of Durham-based Eli Global, gave more than $3.4 million to North Carolina campaign and independent expenditure committees last year. Almost all of it went to three Republican-leaning groups. Lindberg’s donations appear to make him the highest donor in state politics, based on an analysis by The Associated Press.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Greg Lindberg may become the poster child for campaign-finance reform in North Carolina. What he's doing is one of the best examples we've seen of the kind of power that could distort the political process and create a government by highest bid.

Lindberg is the founder and chairman of Durham-based Eli Global, a company that since 2001 has made more than 100 business acquisitions. Some of the companies he has purchased are in health care and insurance, although his investments are wide-ranging. An Associated Press profile of the 47-year-old investor finds that he's little known outside the business community and only in recent years has begun to spend heavily on political races.

Although Lindberg is registered as an unaffiliated voter, many of his donations have been directed to Republican campaign funds. But some of his early donations went to the NC Opportunity Committee, which supported former Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin, a Democrat. Republican Mike Causey defeated Goodwin in 2016 and says his campaign returned a $5,000 donation from Lindberg last year "out of an abundance of caution" because five of Lindberg's companies are regulated by Causey's department.

Unfortunately, not every politician has the same sense of ethical concern. Many others are freely accepting Lindberg's largesse — which last year topped $3.4 million. That's an astonishing level of political giving in a non-election year for all but local politicians. It significantly exceeds what was raised by either of the major political parties in the state.

And it's likely a down payment on this year's legislative races and the 2020 run for governor, which may pit Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper against his Republican lieutenant governor, Dan Forest. Some of the money Lindberg donated last year may end up in Forest's war chest. If the last gubernatorial race is any indicator, Forest is going to need all he can get. Cooper's and former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory's contest saw more than $40 million in spending. The next race for the governor's mansion could cost $50 million or more. That's especially likely if Democrats make inroads in this year's election, which would make control of the governor's office critical for both parties.

All of this is a picture of politics in the era after the U.S. Supreme Court's "Citizens United" decision, which uncorked massive corporate political spending. While the decision primarily affected giving in federal elections, it set off a frenzy of corporate giving on the state level as well. Lindberg has quickly become this state's most prominent player in that high-stakes game, but he's certainly not alone. Corporate donations have become a big part of state politics, especially by businesses that are heavily regulated in North Carolina, like the insurance industry, whose political action committees are prominent in the campaign finance filings of many members of the state House and Senate.

Lavish corporate donations certainly give the donors the best government money can buy. But what about the rest of us? Clearly, the notion that corporations are people too has created an environment that favors big corporate donors over the needs of average voters. We're grateful that we have politicians like Causey who will return corporate contributions because they carry the appearance of conflict. But there are many more who are happy to keep those contributions, knowing full well that they are purchasing access and influence. This country, and this state, need to create some sensible campaign finance laws that give voters the kind of clout that big donors get today. Corporate "citizenship" shouldn't be allowed to carry greater weight and power than individual voters have.

America is at a tipping point, dangerously close to morphing from democracy to plutocracy. Some would argue that the change has already occurred. If Congress and state lawmakers don't move promptly to put reasonable limits on corporate political giving, that may be our fate.

The Fayetteville Observer

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